In an interview with JUST. magazine, Nikki Gershbain, McCarthy Tétrault’s chief inclusion officer, shares details of a pro-bono-focused program, forged in the face of a pandemic, that provides rewarding experiential learning opportunities for students while connecting low-income Canadians with crucial free legal services.
Nikki Gershbain, chief inclusion officer, McCarthy Tétrault
To get started, perhaps you could tell us a bit about how your law student summer program typically works.
Every year, McCarthy Tétrault hires more than 50 law students to work with us in our offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. The goals of our summer program include exposing our students to our firm, our people and our core values; ensuring the students are able to build relationships with our lawyers and staff, as well as one another; creating familiarity with our systems, clients and practice groups; and giving them an opportunity to start learning how to practice law and develop the necessary competencies in a real-world setting.
And this year, when students and employers are contending with extraordinary constraints, how will your summer program differ?
In every way you can possibly imagine! By any measure, this is going to be an extremely unusual summer for our students, because the entire program is unfolding virtually. This means on-boarding and orientation, meeting with lawyers and clients, learning the law, and building workplace relationships are all happening on a screen, from their homes.
It’s almost impossible to fathom the impact this is going to have on the learning experience. Before the pandemic forced us all online, I think we took for granted just how much learning, collaboration and socialization gets done informally – not to mention in-person. So much can be gained just by popping by someone’s office to get some advice or direction, heading out to grab a coffee, or saying hi in the lunchroom.
For a law student, these kinds of informal, impromptu interactions build competencies and confidence, and are instrumental to engagement. In their absence, and under these unusual circumstances, we needed to be more intentional about creating those opportunities, and to find other ways to offer an enriching and educational summer experience.
Your solution was to create a pro bono program for your students. What led to that decision?
Everything happened very quickly. For most of our people, March 13 was our last day in the office. We were instructed that day to take our laptops home just in case, and by Monday, our offices were closed to most activity. Over the course of the rest of that month, and into April, the pandemic was unfolding around us in real time, and the economy started to shut down. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the most vulnerable Canadians were being disproportionately impacted by what was happening. Seemingly overnight, the pandemic created an entirely new set of legal issues and needs.
As chief inclusion officer, my mandate includes community engagement and pro bono, so right from the start my mind went to “how can we help?” Prior to joining the firm, I ran Pro Bono Students Canada, so I know how impactful an army of properly trained and supervised law students can be when deployed to fill gaps in the justice system. At the same time, pro bono is also a priority for our firm, and a huge part of our culture. Last year our lawyers delivered a staggering $5.5M in free legal services to low-income Canadians and the non-profit organizations that serve them.
The firm was committed to providing our students with a meaningful summer experience, despite the challenging circumstances, and to helping our community in this difficult time. The idea for a pro bono program was hatched with a great deal of collaboration with our senior leaders and the chair of our pro bono committee. I also looped in some lawyers I knew couldn’t resist the idea of creating a firm-wide response to the pandemic. One thing led to another. By April, we had established a Pro Bono Summer Student Task Force and assigned an outstanding project manager. We held our first meeting in early May with the two dozen partners and associates who volunteered for the Task Force, and went on to help us build the projects.
Sounds like there’s been an incredible groundswell of support for the initiative. What sorts of opportunities have you and your colleagues developed for students in the summer pro bono program?
In less than six weeks, we created 33 unique, meaningful projects with 19 regional and national community organizations. The projects range from representation to brief services to policy development to public legal education.
For example, several of our students are working on a COVID-related Charter application. Another group is assisting with a ss. 7 and 11 intervention before the Supreme Court. We’ve also placed a number of students with a leading LGBTQ2S community centre in Toronto, where they’re working with a transgender identification clinic and developing an anti-queer violence affidavit program, among other projects. Another group is working on an anti-sex-trafficking awareness project. Students in all of our offices are developing public legal education workshops for underserved BIPOC, parents of kids with disabilities, queer and trans youth, and other vulnerable communities. One of our corporate law projects involves helping small, health-related non-profits scale and deepen their impact.
I should mention that both the CBA and the OBA have been extremely enthusiastic about the program, and we’re very grateful for their support. We’ve placed one student with the CBA Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19. In response to the courts running at reduced capacity during COVID, another student is conducting legal research for lawyers staffing the joint OBA and LSO emergency family law referral telephone line for self-represented litigants. We’re also now in the process of creating a similar set of placements for our Montreal and Quebec City students, whose summer program starts in July.
Those are some fascinating, potentially far-reaching projects. What has been the feedback so far from the students?
Absolutely phenomenal. Although participation in the program is entirely optional, every single one of our students signed up for a placement. Reading their personal statements, where they described their interest in certain projects and their commitment to supporting low-income and equity seeking communities, gave me chills. We knew when we hired this group they were an extremely progressive and community-minded cohort, and this has reinforced those impressions – and more. The profession will be in very good hands with these future lawyers.